“Until the Brains Ran Out”: White Privilege, Physical Anthropology, and Coopted Narratives
By Ventura Pérez, Associate Professor of Anthropology
This piece appears in a special collection of essays in the Vital Topics Forum of American Anthropologist. The journal editors describe how the authors in the collection, "challenge us to move beyond thinking about race as innate and to consider its consequences, including how racism impacts people’s bodies and lives. Others push against oversimplifications of sex, gender, and sexuality, highlighting how the complexities of human diversity have been erased. Scientists from diverse backgrounds also draw attention to the ways that their bodies and experiences shape access to science, and how barriers to participation limit the scope of scientific research. Diversity in science is therefore about more than visibility and representation; it brings the opportunity to change science for the better."
This was the first skull of a fullblood Yaqui that could be collected. There was no such specimen in any institution, and none as good might be found for a long time to come. So, decided to take what remained of the head with us. . . . Thus, for three days until the brains ran out, when the whole skull was filled as well as surrounded with [fresh] hot sand, which subdued the smell considerably; but it was still necessary to carry the specimen under the wagon.
– Aleš Hrdlička
The quote above, by Aleš Hrdlička, founder of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, captures what many marginalized people think of “biological anthropology” or, worse yet, “physical anthropology.” I was recently reminded of this in an email regarding a new project: “What you may not understand about New Mexico is there are many outsiders that have come in throughout the years (anthropologists, historians, architects, art historians, writers, poets and new-agers. Pretty much in that order.) and try to take ownership of our local and regional history and culture.”
My work on violence is as much about correcting the positionality and white privilege of our sordid past as it is about understanding the poetics of violence of specific populations. Methodologically, I am a trained bioarchaeologist who specializes in trauma-pattern recognition, specifically sharp-force trauma (cutmarks and butchery marks). My work is grounded in a biocultural framework that infuses trauma analysis with violence theory to understand the poetics of violence in the archaeological past and the ethnographic present. It transcends space and time to consider the unique cultural circumstances that create and maintain systemic and episodic violence while recognizing the ethical dilemmas bound to privileging particular narratives. The history of physical anthropology is replete with the exploitation of Indigenous and marginalized peoples by white men like Hrdlička. Their collection practices and publications had performative powers to normalize the cultural and structural violence of governments (establishing laws and policy) all over the world, and is one reason minority scholars are needed.
The inclusion of underrepresented groups in biological anthropology and within the American Association of Physical Anthropologists has shifted epistemological frameworks and pedagogical approaches, yet the level of engagement and expectations placed on minority scholars comes with hidden burdens and unrealistic expectations. The unrecognized and unrewarded labor performed by minority faculty is not valued by our academic institutions. It is often referred to as “invisible” because it does not impact decisions regarding reappointment, tenure, or promotions. In addition, we are often burdened with being the social conscience of our institutions—that is, as long as we don’t speak too loudly or forcefully. Yet we take on these burdens because we realize that, for better or worse, we are in a position to challenge the stereotypes and hegemonic narratives of the social identities, gender, ethnicity, or any combination thereof that we represent. Minority faculty and researchers have another obligation: to be role models, mentors, and guides for students as they navigate the labyrinth of higher education. The problem is there aren’t that many of us. Limiting the number of mentors for minority students simultaneously limits their chance of success. And the cycle repeats.
A Chronical of Higher Education article (Myers 2016) titled “Where Are the Minority Professors?” examined the demographics of 400,000 professors at 1,500 colleges and universities. For professors of all ranks at high-research-profile institutions, the article found that 73 percent are white, 13 percent are Asian, 3 percent are Black, 4 percent are Hispanic, and 0.35 percent are American Indian. Looking at tenured full professors, the article found that 82 percent are white, 10 percent are Asian, 2 percent are Black, 3 percent are Hispanic, and 0.2 percent are American Indian. This is important because the positionality of minority scholars has the potential to offer unique and vibrant ways of asking questions and driving new research in biological anthropology.
To me, a Mexican-American man, violence is not an abstraction or simply an expression written on the bodies of those with whom I work. It is a lived experience with physical and emotional realities that I carry with me every day. Certainly, the structural violence built into the tenure system is something all minority faculty know all too well. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2012, I wrote about my life before the academy: “My relationship with violence has always been complicated. I was six years old when my father first put me in a boxing ring, and to this day my preferred method of stress reduction is the heavy bag that hangs in my basement.” My hands have boxer’s fractures (a break in the neck of the metacarpal). In addition to my personal experiences, I carry the weight of the sights and smells of the recently dead with whom I work in a “lockbox” that sits perched on a precipice in my mind’s eye. I open it in moments of reflection for teaching or research and just as quickly close it, putting the worst part of the world out of sight so I can function around those who have little to no idea what I have experienced. This reality informs my questions and drives my research to have a meaningful impact on the world.
Without a doubt, my work has been influenced by my complicated relationship with violence. My grandmother sought safety and refuge for her sons in the United States. In 1951, just south of Río Bravo, Tamaulipas, México, her husband was the victim of a revenge murder. He died in front of his six-year-old son of machete wounds on his way to a doctor’s home. I was honored with his name. That violent family history frames my questions (including asking about the intrinsic culture systems that normalize and maintain violence) while creating a level of community trust. This history provides me with a unique skill set that informs my research and teaching.
I am drawn to projects in which I can facilitate reciprocal relationships with the stakeholders involved and affect change through my scholarship and advocacy, as well as political engagement through policy and the courts. Examples of this include being part the international repatriation of Yaqui remains from the American Museum of Natural History in New York to the Yaqui tribe in México. Also included is the analysis of the circumstances of the disappeared and murdered patients at Montes de Oca, Argentina’s national mental asylum; the cartel violence in Ciudad Juárez; and the autoethnography of the death of my grandfather and the political violence along La Frontera (the border). I recently began a project excavating New Mexico’s first Catholic church, Nuestra Señora de Belén (Our Lady of Belen). The Genízaros (freed captives/slaves from various tribes) along with Spanish, Mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian), and their Indian slaves became the residents of the mission pueblo of Nuestra Señora de Belén. The fundamental goal of this work is the recovery of the history of Belén’s colonial church and plaza complex and the community that utilized it. This work will also result in a peaceful and protected final resting place for those buried first at the now destroyed Catholic church. Finally, I am an expert witness in federal court and testify on behalf of Méxican nationals seeking asylum and citizenship in the United States.
Biological anthropologists no longer travel in wagons with decomposing heads, but we still have the power to swoop in and take data to our institutions with the sole purpose of benefitting from the publications produced. My positionality has afforded me opportunities to work with communities about violence in the present and the past. It has given me the opportunity to testify in federal court as an expert witness to do what I can to keep people from being deported back to violence-ridden lives in violence-ridden countries. In short, I credit my family history—my history—with teaching me long before I was an academic that the communities with which I partner are not there to serve me; I am there to serve them. I am not sure I could say that and truly believe it if I didn’t have the background I do, if I didn’t bring with me to the academy a tattered and disruptive family history.
Myers, Ben. 2016. “Where Are the Minority Professors?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14.
Pérez, Ventura R. 2012. “The Bioarchaeology of Violence: Infusing Method with Theory.” The SAA Archaeological Record 12 (3): 35–38.
 J. Andrew Darling, personal notes on Aleš Hrdlička Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Email message to author, 2007.